Released: March 2015
Every now and again a book comes along with the power to make me plough through it like there’s no tomorrow. And as it so happens, the end of the world is one of the many dark themes in Smith Henderson’s terrific debut novel – though not literally.
Jeremiah Pearl is the preacher of an Armageddon he is convinced is nigh in this Montana-set story taking place at the turn of the 1980s against the backdrop of coal-black mountains, elk-filled forests and sparsely populated diners and bars. He is the father of Benjamin, with whom he lives remotely on a site surrounded by wild dogs, where gold is seen as God’s currency and punishment for sin is severe and as old Testament as it can get.
One day, Benjamin is found wandering a school in old clothes and no shoes by Pete Snow, our young, long-haired, hippie social worker protagonist who is plagued by devastating cases across the State and not to mention a troubling family life of his own. From here, we untangle the bizarre case of the Pearl’s with him, as well as pick up on a case Pete is already in the midst of – another young boy, physically and emotionally abused by his neglectful mother, now prone to provocative sexual behaviour and disturbing substance abuse. At home – or, lack thereof – Pete is dealing with divorce and a rebellious teenager daughter who goes missing shortly after her mother moves her across the country to Texas, and we’re left to question who the bad parent really is.
Henderson’s prose is outstanding. His way with words is so visceral, so detailed yet at the same time he doesn’t hold our hand as a reader and guide the way. There’s a step back, allowing us to interpret the feeling of his words without having them put together piece by piece which can, in other works, distract from the story. Exposition in this book is so refreshing – it’s a joy to read, even if the material is so dark, and, at times, stomach-turning.
Related to that – his is not an easy tale to take. I spent a lot of this book feeling angry and frustrated, shocked and disturbed – but strong emotions are the mark of powerful writing, and Fourth of July Creek is very powerful and moving indeed. I would love to see this book set the world on fire as it so deserves – it’s refreshing, beautifully written and so compelling. Highly recommended.